Who will control renewable energy?

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Who will control renewable energy?

Are big energy companies going to control all the new renewable energy? Danny Chivers writes about the choices we have.


The London Array, off the east coast of Britain, is now the world’s biggest offshore wind farm. E-ON, DONG Energy, Masdar (from UAE) and La Caisse (Canadian investment fund) own it together. © London Array Limited

In January this year, Jeremy Leggett (energy researcher) told the Guardian newspaper that he thinks one of the big oil companies will soon stop using fossil fuels completely and only use renewable energy. ‘One of the oil companies will change,’ he said.

Leggett says this is because the price of oil is now low, because it is getting cheaper to produce renewable-energy, and because of possible government action on climate change. People who fight against fossil fuels said this was great.

But wait. Would this really be good news? If we want to stop global climate change, we need to leave at least 80 per cent of known fossil fuels in the ground, and renewable energy will help with that. But do we trust the same big energy companies (BP, Exxon, Total etc) that caused the problems to own our new, clean energy system and to develop renewable energy in a fair and sustainable way?

Look at what is happening now. All over the world, companies and governments that have got rich from our system that runs on fossil-fuels are doing their best to slow down and control the growth of renewable energy. We need to fight back with a different vision: a clean energy system that the people control and develop.

A revolution in renewables?

In 2014 renewables made progress. Wind power projects around the world grew by 15 per cent and solar power projects by 32 per cent. Solar electricity is now cheaper than the average energy from power grids in Spain, Italy, Australia, Chile, Germany, Brazil and at least 10 US states. UBS, the world’s biggest private bank, told its investors that large, centralized power stations will soon end in Europe. We will not need them because of solar panels on roofs and home energy storage in the next 20 years. And the governments of India and China are planning very big solar- and wind-power schemes. Australia is worried, because it wanted to expand its coal industry to export to them.

All this could lead to a better energy future. Last year, we showed how it is technically possible for everyone in the world to have enough energy for a good quality of life, using only renewable technology that already exists. But this will only be possible if rich people – mostly in Northern countries – stop using too much energy, so that everyone else can get to a fair and sustainable level. This isn’t happening; instead, except for the financial crisis year in 2008, total energy use in OECD countries has been rising all the time.

To stop climate change getting too bad, we need to change to new cleaner energy sources very quickly. It’s not useful to put a solar-powered radio in a big car that runs on diesel. More renewable energy has reduced the use of coal in a few countries – eg. the US and China – but has not had much influence around the whole world. Between 2010 and 2013, the annual production of renewable energy grew by about 0.5 PWh (a million million kilowatt hours) to 20 PWh per year; but at the same time, use of fossil fuels every year grew by 8 PWh – 16 times more – to 128 PWh/year.

The problem is that all these things we need to do to get a safer future – cut fossil fuel use, cut use of energy in rich countries and share clean energy fairly around the world – are all against the economic system we have, which wants everything to grow. Naomi Klein (writer and activist) says that the climate needs people to use less resources, but the economic model forces everything to grow as much as possible.

But there is some hope from renewable energy. Renewable technologies make it possible to build a new, decentralized, democratic energy system to produce energy for everyone, not produce money for a few people. But many powers – economic and business – are against this. They want to control renewable energy to make it go in a different direction.

What are we fighting against?

It’s true. The fossil fuel industry wants to try to stop clean energy. They make far more quick money by selling oil, coal and gas. It takes a lot longer to make money from wind or solar power. Especially with all the money (subsidies) governments pay to help the fossil fuel industry, the international energy infrastructure already set up to use the fossil fuels, and freedom to make as much carbon pollution as they like. The big oil, gas and coal companies are working hard to keep society using fossil fuels and stop clean energy: they give money to politicians who support them, they build relationships with officials and give a lot of money to groups that fight against renewable energy.

But not always. If they can get good money from clean energy, or get government money (subsidies) and not affect the energy market, the big companies might start working with renewables. This is why BP, Shell and Exxon have started working with liquid biofuels, and why big important power plants like Drax in Britain are starting to mix a lot of woodfuel in with their coal.

These are good examples of what can happen if big companies use what they say is ‘renewable’ energy to make a lot of money, without thinking about the people and the environment: working with industrial biofuels, wood in power stations and large hydropower dams. Energy crops and hydroelectricity are OK when small and local. But when big companies want to make a lot of money from them, this leads to hunger, land grabs and deforestation; and very large dams for hydro-electricity destroy large areas of nature and the homes, lands and lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

These projects should be a warning. Wind and solar power are still quite small, compared to traditional energy, but they are growing fast. Wind and solar do not destroy as much as fossil fuels, but they do have some effects – especially if we need them to develop for a fossil-free future. Will they develop using renewable power with respect for workers’ rights and the environment?; using mostly recycled materials, and as part of the community? Or will they develop in terrible work conditions, using minerals from big mining projects and in giant energy parks on rainforest land where all the trees have been cut and the people forced to leave?

We don’t know which way they will develop. Renewables could totally change our energy system. Solar panels could be very good: 85 per cent of the solar panels we have now are on millions of rooftops, and only 15 per cent are in solar parks. If the people can get to and control the energy more, this will bring power to millions of people, improve lives and help communities who do not have a voice to have more political and social influence.

But there are risks. Wind and solar generators need a lot of building material and land space. They need less than 1 per cent of what it takes to get coal, oil and gas out of the ground, but if we increase renewables, we will need a lot more steel, cement, aluminium and copper. This could have serious effects on some areas around the world if we don’t manage it well. Wind power is much more efficient on a large scale; but big wind farms usually need a lot more money – and community groups do not have this. Usually it’s governments or big energy companies that have the money. Seventy-five per cent of all wind turbines are made by only 10 companies.

Desertec shows us what a centralized solar energy, based on making money, could be like. It could be like the fossil fuel industry is now – neo-colonial and racist, not respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and black communities of colour. Doing anything just to get‘cheap’ energy for the industrialized nations.

Who has power over power?

As wind and solar technology gets cheaper – and if low oil prices, more climate laws and more costs mean that fossil fuels make less money – we can expect more bigger companies, like oil and gas companies, to take over.

In many countries, private companies already own the energy supply. This is because of many years of privatization from neoliberal Northern governments and institutions like the World Bank. So we have higher energy bills and not enough grid electricity for communities outside cities. About 1.3 billion people around the world still have no electricity, while many others don’t have enough money for it.


'British Gas with Nissan now put chargers in homes for electric cars. (britishgas.co.uk)

In the future we will have to fight about ownership, control of and access to renewable energy. Who will pay for and own the building materials, the factories, the technical knowledge, the site of installation, the equipment and the energy it produces? If we have more democratic control over each stage of this process, we will have more chance of creating low-impact, climate-friendly energy systems so everyone will be able to access and pay for energy. We also need to change to renewables in a fair way – to retrain workers from the fossil energy sector; this will only happen if the workers are more important than what the energy companies want.

It’s difficult to imagine the big private companies in rich countries trying to cut energy use. And it’s just as difficult to imagine them reducing fossil fuels as renewables develop, or supporting plans to provide cheaper energy to people who need it. These companies have caused all the problems, and now they want to be control the new renewable future.

What price?

Who owns the distribution network will also become more important. Smart grids could make it easier for producers and consumers to share and use energy more efficiently. This will mean it’s not so important to have centralized power production. But the people who own and control these networks will decide who can use them and how much they cost. They will also have all the information about how much energy each house uses. The energy company E.ON has recently divided its business: one half runs the fossil fuel power stations and the other half works with renewables and ‘smarter’ distribution networks. Google has put a lot of money into smart meters in homes.

Will companies like these be happy with government or household contracts to build these systems; or will they look for ways of making more money? Like the internet, an energy-sharing network could be a good way of working together in many different ways; or it could be another way for big companies to control us. The important things are how it is set up, and who owns it. Energy companies have persuaded the governments of Spain and Arizona to put a tax on solar panels - as ‘payment’ for connection to the energy grid; is this the future?

And we mustn’t forget the technologies that use energy. We need to change to electric vehicles to end our need for oil, but we also need to move from private car use to public transport and cycling. If not, we will need more electricity than renewables can make. It is mostly car companies (eg. Renault, Nissan, Tesla and Mitsubishi), helped by governments, who are developing electric vehicles. This could be why there should be a million fully electric cars in 2015, but not nearly so many electric buses.


Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors - is he saving the world? (ANP / Alamy)

Tesla is leading the development of electric vehicle charging stations in the US. Tesla is run by ‘playboy billionaire’ Elon Musk. Many people say he’s great for taking this financial risk; but of course his company could earn a lot of money – and the electric charging network will be under private control. And should we rely on billionaires to introduce sustainable technology? What if Musk gets bored with electric vehicles and decides to put all his money into space exploration?

More people rely more now on companies, not governments, to provide energy. This is because of a global economic system based on ‘liberalization’, making money, and needing to grow. We need to reverse this if we want renewable energy to be a force for good.

But other models are appearing all over the world. Renewable energy co-operatives have hundreds of thousands of members and have their own solar, wind and small hydro projects from Indonesia to Costa Rica. They own three-quarters of Denmark’s wind turbines, and are growing quickly in Spain, Britain and other countries; in Germany, more than half of renewable electricity is owned by citizens, co-operatives and community groups.

In Venezuela and Bolivia, the governments have given the energy industry back to the public. In Uruguay, the popular state-owned energy system has been very successful in giving more people access to energy. It is now working on efficiency and wind power projects. In Hamburg and Berlin (Germany), they have voted for the local councils to buy back the energy grid from transnational companies.

But we also need to change the political and economic system. There’s no use fighting for publicly owned energy if the national or local government is corrupt, undemocratic, or very influenced by business or money.

We need to fight for democracy of energy and politics at the same time. These projects can support and help each other. If we break the power of the fossil fuel companies and big utility firms, and bring money to communities, co-operatives and the public sector, this will bring new democratic change.

To make this happen, we need some good short-term goals to make it all change. We can learn from Germany, Denmark and Bolivia. In these countries, the government supports renewable energy co-operatives. And this change has brought power back to the people. If we bring energy industries back under national or local control, this could be a good step. And we should do this together with other democratic reforms; eg. in Norway, Denmark and Uruguay, they have a lot of workers on the teams who manage national energy.

We will need to reduce the power and influence of the fossil fuel companies. We need to get the representatives of fossil fuel companies out of government and take subsidies away from polluting fuels and give them to clean energy. Divestment campaigns (to stop using fossil fuels) shouldn’t just call for an end to fossil fuel funding but also make public money go to cleaner energy: not big energy company renewable schemes but community energy, sustainable local transport and energy efficiency projects.

We can’t just sit back and expect the falling price of solar and wind to change the old energy order. Renewable energy could help us end the system we have now – but we need to use it well, and not let the wrong people control it!

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2015/03/01/renewable-energy-keynote/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).